Jack Perrin is not your typical science teacher.
“I really love hands-on stuff,” he said last month when I visited him in White Salmon, Washington. “If kids can use their hands, learning goes a lot deeper.”
Perrin was my science and math teacher all through grade and high school at a small private school in the Western Colorado town of Paonia. He caught my attention right away when he introduced a course titled ‘bubble-ology’ to my second grade class. By the time I was in high school, his lessons had evolved in a more athletic way: we would pop off to Utah for a week of backpacking, learning how to start a fire with flint or cook pasta inside a sleeping bag.
“I think for me, teaching has always been about relationships,” he says. “Paying attention to the relationship made it possible for us to do a lot of things that we wouldn’t have been able to do if I just regarded you as the girl that takes math from me one period a day.”
Perrin grew up in Portland and moved back to the Northwest to be near family a couple of years ago. Besides his part time job teaching science at White Salmon High School, he runs the Gorge Makerspace, a workshop currently housed in the basement of the youth center in White Salmon.
The center picks kids up from school every day and gives them a place to play and do homework until their parents get off work. On Tuesdays, Perrin opens up the Makerspace and facilitates different activities that any of the kids can participate in. They’ve done everything from puppetry classes and sticker-making to building marble runs. Last summer, a small group of pre-teens wielding hammers built a clubhouse in the youth center yard.
On a recent Tuesday, Perrin had a group of kids, ages 7-11, working with Spheros—little spherical robots that look like pool balls come to life, or the droid BB8 from “Star Wars,” but without the head. Perrin was interested in how the kids could hack the basic robots, challenging them to build a carriage that they could attach to the Spheros.
The game was to transport plastic pandas, via robot, across an obstacle course and back to the zoo. The students were using cardboard and recycled yogurt containers to construct their wagons. There were hot glue guns and electric cardboard cutting saws, and everyone wanted to work with the drills and power tools.
“It’s a little more funner,” said 11-year-old Rosalinda about creating at Makerspace versus her school classes. “We get to cut things, more sharper things, we get to learn how to use [tools].”
Getting tools in the hands of kids is a big part of what Perrin does.
“I think the message kids get at public school is: you don’t know what you are doing, you’re not any good, what’s wrong with you,” he says. “I want every kid to feel like they can do something well, and they can feel good about what they do.”
The Gorge Makerspace is getting a new home. They are expanding into the Bethel Church across Main Street from their current home. The larger space will allow Perrin to put together a more extensive class list, including spring break and summer camps, and some Saturday camps for all ages. Perrin plans to keep expanding and helping kids continue to keep on creating and to never, ever, stop learning.